Sailing: Dalton's southern exposure

Andrew Preece in Fremantle hears a disgruntled skipper cope with calamity
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The biggest news of the week came four days after the winner Swedish Match arrived in Fremantle at the end of the second leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race: Merit Cup arrived. The skipper Grant Dalton had been telling his shore team to keep the Press away and allow him to slip in discreetly after a disastrous tactical move early in the leg had left him "delivering the boat" to Fremantle. It was never going to be. Merit Cup finishing seventh just a few hours ahead of two back markers that are already out of the overall running, was as big a story as the upset of form that saw Swedish Match turn an eighth on the first leg into an emphatic win last Sunday night. Dalton, the self-proclaimed deep ocean specialist, was well and truly beaten at his own game.

And to add insult to injury, Merit Cup never saw the big winds that gave the leaders such an exhilarating ride. "This was the worst I've ever seen the Southern Ocean," said Knut Frostad, whose Innovation Kvaerner finished second and who now holds the overall race lead. "We broke a stanchion and blew out one jib," said Dalton. "And we had our survival suits on for one day. It wasn't that rough."

But he managed to put a brave face on it. The smile as he docked was clear indication that this, to Merit Cup's skipper, was short-term disaster. "Thank Christ for the points system," he said, knowing that had this Whitbread been about elapsed time, his race would have been run. "It was bad for us," he said. "But not too bad. We've got to get consistent and we've got to start doing some winning. Now!"

Meanwhile up at the front all the talk was of the big winds. They were not just big - 57 knots was the highest wind speed that was recorded, aboard Swedish Match - but relentless too. "In the Southern Ocean you usually get big conditions for two or three days and then you get a couple of days to recover," said the Briton Matt Humphries, who joined Swedish Match in Cape Town. "This time it went on and on and on." Humphries, like many others, looked beaten up in the face for a couple of days after he arrived. The pounding from sluicing water as the boat slices along at a steady 20 knots is too much for ski goggles and face mask. And for the helmsmen there is the added physical pounding from the bucking wheel which judders arms and wrists as the boat careers down Southern Ocean swells.

Under a new skipper, Paul Standbridge, Toshiba finished third, the crew delighted to have bounced back from the split from Chris Dickson in Cape Town. For Standbridge, Fremantle was a particularly welcome sight: he had brought his crew through in one piece and in good order. "I wanted to be in the top three," he said, "and here we are in the top three. But, what's more, we haven't killed anybody!"

But if Standbridge hadn't killed anybody, fifth-placed Paul Cayard felt he was lucky not to have done. The Whitbread novice got caught in a vicious broach with the bowman Curtis Blewitt up the mast and the rig shaking violently. The crew went to cut the halyard to get the spinnaker down and cut the wrong one. Blewitt, his support hacked away, was left clinging to the mast until the crew below managed to get the boat back on its feet. "When it's blowing 40 and the waves are up to mast height and the boat's all rocked up on its side, it's pretty scary," said Cayard. "I'm not used to letting up - ever. But there are times when you have to take a short- term loss to make a long-term gain and Paul Cayard learned a thing or two about that on this leg."

So with two weeks until the start of the next leg, EF Language lies second behind Kvaerner. The two have a small breathing space ahead of a raft of boats from third down to seventh, which are all within 36 points of each other. Before the start of the race Lawrie Smith would have been disappointed with two fourth places. But the British team have set the speed record for the race with a 449.29-mile day (also a new world monohull record for 24 hours) and head the five-boat chasing pack in third.

WHITBREAD ROUND THE WORLD RACE: Overall Positions after two legs: 1 Kvaerner Innovation 207pts; 2 EF Language 197; 3 Silk Cut 168; 4 Swedish Match 161; 5 Merit Cup 158; 6 Toshiba 157; 7 Chessie Racing 132; 8 EF Education 60; 9 Brunel Sunergy 36.